Sunday, 20 May 2018
A woman sits on a rock by a river looking up at a bridge for inspiration. She has gotten into the habit of carrying around with her a small notebook to write down passing observations and feelings she has about and towards the world: the reflection of sunlight from an apple, birds singing in the trees, and now this bridge. As she makes to put pen to paper, she pauses, searching for the right words. Before she can find them it starts to rain and her blank page is peppered with raindrops. She looks across the broken surface of the river, puts away her notebook, and sits for a while in the rain. The world cries.
Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry observes as this woman, Yang Mi-ja, a 66 year old in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, tries to find meaning in the world around her. She takes a short-course in poetry, two lessons a week for one month, and is tasked by her teacher to write one poem by the time the month is up. Meanwhile, her oafish grandson, who lives with her instead of his absent mother, has admitted to his teachers that he repeatedly raped a female classmate with his friends over the course of several months, ultimately leading to her suicide. Cornered by the other boys’ fathers, Mi-ja is forced to join them in offering the girl’s mother hush money, that she can’t afford, so that she won’t press charges. The school doesn’t want to tarnish its reputation with bad publicity, and the police don’t want to investigate unless the mother presses charges. And so, this unconscionable cover-up is allowed to unfold, acknowledged by all parties as the only logical course of action.
How does one look upon such an ugly world and write poetry? “Poetry is dying,” her teacher tells her, and it’s easy to see why. Lee, whose films are filled with trains, taxis and buses, portrays this community as one filled with moral passengers: people who will continue to profit as long as their behaviour remains unchecked. Mi-ja works as a maid for an elderly man recovering from a stroke, who surreptitiously takes viagra instead of his regular pills in an attempt to trick her into stimulating his penis while she bathes him. Later, Mi-ja is told that a brash policeman at a poetry recital was demoted and sent to their rural town from the city for reporting internal corruption.
This world has been poisoned by wilful silence in the name of profit, yet Mi-ja, though stupefied by the behaviour of those around her, is single-minded in her determination to find some semblance of beauty, whether that’s the taste of a fallen apricot on the ground of an orchard or justice for an unpunished act of devastating violence. When her finished poem is finally revealed, she is the only person in her class to have written one. “It’s too difficult,” a woman says when asked why she hasn’t done the one thing the teacher asked of her. The rest of the class smile bashfully like schoolchildren, relieved in the knowledge that while they’ve wasted their time, they are not alone in doing so and therefore cannot realistically be made to feel bad about their failure. It’s easier to stay quiet than to speak up, and Lee leaves us with a room of poets with nothing to say, listening as the teacher begins to read the absent Mi-ja’s exorcistic poem aloud. This ordeal is over. Is there a future for poetry?
Saturday, 5 May 2018
Femme Fatale | Brian De Palma, 2002
Ophelia | John Everett Millais, 1851-1852 (cropped)
In Hamlet, Ophelia’s death is described in vivid detail but not witnessed first-hand. As Queen Gertrude tells Laertes, Ophelia is said to have climbed a tree overhanging a river only for the branch to snap, causing her to fall into the water and float downstream, the weight of her wet clothes finally dragging her below the surface. Shakespeare presents us with an account of events, the details of which suggest that Ophelia's death was either witnessed but not intervened upon, or the narrative of it has been pieced together from assumptions based on clues found after the fact. We're also presented with a woman’s body, identified, buried and mourned as Ophelia. We have to assume that Ophelia drowned by accident because there’s nothing to prove that this recounted tale of events is false. All that matters is that she died. The play goes on. John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, his most famous work, is a depiction of this description. The body of Ophelia floats downstream accompanied by daisy-chains, her clothes billowing in the water and her face contorted in despair. A visual representation of a described death. Millais can’t know the truth of what happened to Ophelia as it is never witnessed in the play, only repeated third, fourth, fifth-hand. All he has is the account. The perception of events is visualised and immortalised on canvas. An image to prove the words.
During a very brief moment in Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, part of a poster for an art exhibition is glimpsed as a labourer removes it from a billboard in a Parisian square. The same poster is seen later on a different billboard in a different part of town. It appears to include a copy of Millais’s Ophelia superimposed upon a different painting, depicting a large clock tower with its hands showing the time as 3:33, a time shared by all analogue clock-faces in this film. Millais’s work, however, is no longer exactly as he painted it. Instead, it depicts the face of the actress Rebecca Romijn, or, presumably, Laure, or even Lily, her character(s) in the film, in the place of Millais's original Ophelia. Alongside her is the same daisy-chain that Millais painted, and she is reclined in the same position, wearing the same dress, with the same reeds by her head and the same swirl of red hair below the surface of the water. Her expression, however, is different. Laure is relaxed and carefree, while Millais paints anguish on his Ophelia. Laure is dreaming, far from the imminent and inevitable death known to Ophelia, while asleep in a bathtub in a different reality. This is her dreamed future, featuring only faces from her past: strangers, enemies, lovers. "I put the clues together and I know what happened," says Nicolas, a photographer caught up in it all, but he has no idea. It's all too perfect, too easy, too reliant on chance and deja vu — it's unreal, but only in hindsight. In the moment, it's taken at face value. A float downstream, a constructed chain of events. Laure is Queen Gertrude trying to pass as Ophelia, fully in control of the narrative while presenting herself as a victim of it. A perfect plan executed faultlessly. A dream masquerading as an unquestioned truth. The play goes on.